Dateline Texas

No PromiseLand for Me

The Love Won Out conference kicked off its multi-city national tour in Austin on a sunny morning in late February. A media advisory from the heavily promoted tour alerted me to the event. It was hosted by Focus on the Family, a powerful Colorado-based Christian right “traditional values” advocacy organization founded by James Dobson.

Focus thinks homosexuality is a treatable mental condition, and because they believe in loving the homosexual, they label themselves “pro-gay.” They pitch the conferences to worried parents and spouses. Their press release features comments like this one from an unnamed doctor: “As a pediatrician, this information will be extremely useful in working with parents and children to prevent homosexual behavior and recognize family dynamics and warning signs, which may lead to homosexuality in children.” They also included a handy statistic: the percentage of past attendees who learned they could “balance love and truth when opposing homosexuality.” Before the conference only 57.6 percent replied “yes.” After the event that figure rose to 97 percent.

Every gay activist I’ve ever spoken to considers the idea of curing homosexuality ridiculous and Focus on the Family’s self-titled label of “pro-gay” a deceitful misnomer. As a gay man who happens to be a journalist, I decided to explore this mutation of American evangelical Christianity for myself.

Cars packed the parking lot but I squeezed into the last space at PromiseLand, a Texas megachurch sitting on 26 acres in northeast Austin. Through the main chapel’s double doors, beyond the people checking wristbands, I observed a large audience listening to a lecture. Heterosexual couples and single men of all ages came and went. Rather than take the plunge, I wandered through the corridors around the main hall where more than 20 exhibitor booths were spread out in a horseshoe.

At the exhibits, excessively groomed, middle-aged men with nametags stood chatting idly. I sidled up to the Christian Coalition for Reconciliation, a group with a banner that proclaimed “Freedom from Homosexuality.”

“Where are you from?” the forty-something exhibitor asked.

“I live in Austin, but I’m English,” I replied. “Though my father was from Fort Worth, my mother is a Londoner.”

“Ooh, what a strange combination. I drink tea the English way,” he volunteered. “I love England. I know just how to make a good cup of tea.”

“Really?” I started sniffing fakery. The literature on the table detailed how the man’s relationship with God helped him become straight. Did this man truly consider himself a “former” homosexual? Why did he seem so overly mannered? Mischievous thoughts flickered through my mind. Time for gaydar. “What type of kettle do you use, electric or stove-top?” If he answered electric, I knew that his tastes were too refined for a straight man. Call me politically incorrect, but I’m convinced that straight men just don’t know that electric kettles improve the taste of English tea.

He smiled, a tad flirtatiously. “I’ve got an electric kettle. The water has to be super hot. I know you English.”

And I know gay people. Who was this guy fooling?

I walked over to media registration. A man with a broad smile wearing a Madonna-like headset with microphone took my business card. “I’ve got a Patrick Timmons here from The Texas Observer,” the man said into his microphone. He smiled again. He wasn’t really looking at me, but concentrating on the instructions coming from the headphone in his left ear. “Our media relations person will be with you shortly,” he informed me crisply.

A thirty-something man walked up. Dressed in preppy slacks and a lime green button-down shirt, he introduced himself as belonging to Exodus International, a group that helps people recover from homosexuality. I discerned a telltale gay lilt to his voice. He was so dedicated to the cause, he confided, that recently he’d moved to Orlando, the location of Exodus’ head offices.

From that moment until my departure, he never left my side, keenly watching whenever I jotted down a word into my notepad. He urged me to interview the people specifically available for media sessions. I told him that I usually prefer to find my own subjects, but he insisted.

I observed as broadcast journalists tossed softball questions to a half dozen conference volunteers. In response to inquiries about why they’d come, all stayed on message: A gay family member had brought strife into their lives but Jesus saves. One woman related how her former husband, a closeted gay man, used to stay away from home all the time. Later she discovered the reason. It had nothing to do with her, of course, it was his homosexuality. Each tale ended with the affirmation that the Bible identifies homosexuality as a sin but “we” have a choice.

I asked my minder if I might attend one of the advertised presentations with titles like “Prevention of Male Homosexuality” and “Teaching Captivity? Addressing the Pro-Gay Agenda in Your School.” He said I was barred from sessions where family members asked “sensitive questions.” I would be allowed to attend John Paulk’s talk. Since it was being taped, no questions were allowed.

Paulk is the Pat Robertson of former queers. Even I had heard of him. He is the movement’s poster boy and Focus on the Family’s chief “former-homosexual” organizer.

His appearance was startling. In media photos he shines with a pudgy pre-pubescence. But now, in disguise as a former homosexual, Paulk wears a beard. His tone is clear and the argument—though specious—has the merit of polished organization. He engaged the audience like a consummate showman.

“The first thing you have to do is to turn to the Lord,” Paulk explained. Homosexuality is a sin whose cure is a loving family committed to Christ. But in Paulk’s case, this recipe for happiness hasn’t always worked. He failed to mention to the audience that although now a father with an ex-lesbian for a wife, in 2000 staffers from the Human Rights Campaign—a gay rights advocacy group—caught him in a gay bar in Washington, D.C. Confronted by them, he tried initially to deny his identity.

The session with Paulk ended. I walked to the exhibition booths. Here Paulk’s compassion for homosexuals yielded to hard-knuckled Texas politics. I drifted over to the conservative, Plano-based Free Market Foundation. The Foundation supports bills before the Texas House to prevent gays from foster parenting, joint adoptions, and gay marriage. The Foundation actively uses the courts to defend laws that punish gays. In mid-February they presented the U.S. Supreme Court with a brief defending Texas’ sodomy statute. And, if Warren Chisum’s (R-Pampa) Defense of Marriage Act is not passed this session, the group shrilly warns, the “homosexual agenda across Texas, threatening the validity of loving, traditional families.”

I stood reading their Biblically tinged pamphlets denying gay people rights accorded straights. These people might preach love in their fastidiously orchestrated conferences, but their agenda is pure fear and hate. I thought with relief about my Texan and Christian friends who do not believe in a global gay conspiracy. I took comfort in the numbers. I am, after all, just one minority of many that this culture objectifies.

I had seen enough. My minder apparently had to verify my departure, so he escorted me to the exit. In order to leave the event, all participants had to pass by the Focus on the Family store. That’s when I understood what Love Won Out is really all about.

My minder boasted that 1,300 people had attended the event, from 14 states and Colombia. I did the math. The conference raised at least $65,000 in door receipts. I remembered reading about Focus on the Family’s recent financial difficulties. Back in January, the organization announced it was reducing its $130 million annual budget by $5 million and eliminating 100 jobs from its main office in Colorado Springs.

I watched as workers off to the side hurriedly burned take-home CDs of the proceedings. They would be for sale at day’s end, my minder informed. Five large tables displayed hundreds of books, tapes, CDs and videos—many of which came in expensive variety packs. As I left the church, the noise of the bustling cash registers rang in my ears. n

Observer intern Patrick Timmons entered into a Vermont Civil Union with his life partner in August 2000, one of the first thousand “pioneer” couples. Homophobia in Texas makes him itch uncontrollably.

he Love Won Out conference kicked off its multi-city national tour in Austin on a sunny morning in late February. A media advisory from the heavily promoted tour alerted me to the event. It was hosted by Focus on the Family, a powerful Colorado-based Christian right “traditional values” advocacy organization founded by James Dobson.

Focus thinks homosexuality is a treatable mental condition, and because they believe in loving the homosexual, they label themselves “pro-gay.” They pitch the conferences to worried parents and spouses. Their press release features comments like this one from an unnamed doctor: “As a pediatrician, this information will be extremely useful in working with parents and children to prevent homosexual behavior and recognize family dynamics and warning signs, which may lead to homosexuality in children.” They also included a handy statistic: the percentage of past attendees who learned they could “balance love and truth when opposing homosexuality.” Before the conference only 57.6 percent replied “yes.” After the event that figure rose to 97 percent.

Every gay activist I’ve ever spoken to considers the idea of curing homosexuality ridiculous and Focus on the Family’s self-titled label of “pro-gay” a deceitful misnomer. As a gay man who happens to be a journalist, I decided to explore this mutation of American evangelical Christianity for myself.

Cars packed the parking lot but I squeezed into the last space at PromiseLand, a Texas megachurch sitting on 26 acres in northeast Austin. Through the main chapel’s double doors, beyond the people checking wristbands, I observed a large audience listening to a lecture. Heterosexual couples and single men of all ages came and went. Rather than take the plunge, I wandered through the corridors around the main hall where more than 20 exhibitor booths were spread out in a horseshoe.

At the exhibits, excessively groomed, middle-aged men with nametags stood chatting idly. I sidled up to the Christian Coalition for Reconciliation, a group with a banner that proclaimed “Freedom from Homosexuality.”

“Where are you from?” the forty-something exhibitor asked.

“I live in Austin, but I’m English,” I replied. “Though my father was from Fort Worth, my mother is a Londoner.”

“Ooh, what a strange combination. I drink tea the English way,” he volunteered. “I love England. I know just how to make a good cup of tea.”

“Really?” I started sniffing fakery. The literature on the table detailed how the man’s relationship with God helped him become straight. Did this man truly consider himself a “former” homosexual? Why did he seem so overly mannered? Mischievous thoughts flickered through my mind. Time for gaydar. “What type of kettle do you use, electric or stove-top?” If he answered electric, I knew that his tastes were too refined for a straight man. Call me politically incorrect, but I’m convinced that straight men just don’t know that electric kettles improve the taste of English tea.

He smiled, a tad flirtatiously. “I’ve got an electric kettle. The water has to be super hot. I know you English.”

And I know gay people. Who was this guy fooling?

I walked over to media registration. A man with a broad smile wearing a Madonna-like headset with microphone took my business card. “I’ve got a Patrick Timmons here from The Texas Observer,” the man said into his microphone. He smiled again. He wasn’t really looking at me, but concentrating on the instructions coming from the headphone in his left ear. “Our media relations person will be with you shortly,” he informed me crisply.

A thirty-something man walked up. Dressed in preppy slacks and a lime green button-down shirt, he introduced himself as belonging to Exodus International, a group that helps people recover from homosexuality. I discerned a telltale gay lilt to his voice. He was so dedicated to the cause, he confided, that recently he’d moved to Orlando, the location of Exodus’ head offices.

From that moment until my departure, he never left my side, keenly watching whenever I jotted down a word into my notepad. He urged me to interview the people specifically available for media sessions. I told him that I usually prefer to find my own subjects, but he insisted.

I observed as broadcast journalists tossed softball questions to a half dozen conference volunteers. In response to inquiries about why they’d come, all stayed on message: A gay family member had brought strife into their lives but Jesus saves. One woman related how her former husband, a closeted gay man, used to stay away from home all the time. Later she discovered the reason. It had nothing to do with her, of course, it was his homosexuality. Each tale ended with the affirmation that the Bible identifies homosexuality as a sin but “we” have a choice.

I asked my minder if I might attend one of the advertised presentations with titles like “Prevention of Male Homosexuality” and “Teaching Captivity? Addressing the Pro-Gay Agenda in Your School.” He said I was barred from sessions where family members asked “sensitive questions.” I would be allowed to attend John Paulk’s talk. Since it was being taped, no questions were allowed.

Paulk is the Pat Robertson of former queers. Even I had heard of him. He is the movement’s poster boy and Focus on the Family’s chief “former-homosexual” organizer.

His appearance was startling. In media photos he shines with a pudgy pre-pubescence. But now, in disguise as a former homosexual, Paulk wears a beard. His tone is clear and the argument—though specious—has the merit of polished organization. He engaged the audience like a consummate showman.

“The first thing you have to do is to turn to the Lord,” Paulk explained. Homosexuality is a sin whose cure is a loving family committed to Christ. But in Paulk’s case, this recipe for happiness hasn’t always worked. He failed to mention to the audience that although now a father with an ex-lesbian for a wife, in 2000 staffers from the Human Rights Campaign—a gay rights advocacy group—caught him in a gay bar in Washington, D.C. Confronted by them, he tried initially to deny his identity.

The session with Paulk ended. I walked to the exhibition booths. Here Paulk’s compassion for homosexuals yielded to hard-knuckled Texas politics. I drifted over to the conservative, Plano-based Free Market Foundation. The Foundation supports bills before the Texas House to prevent gays from foster parenting, joint adoptions, and gay marriage. The Foundation actively uses the courts to defend laws that punish gays. In mid-February they presented the U.S. Supreme Court with a brief defending Texas’ sodomy statute. And, if Warren Chisum’s (R-Pampa) Defense of Marriage Act is not passed this session, the group shrilly warns, the “homosexual agenda across Texas, threatening the validity of loving, traditional families.”

I stood reading their Biblically tinged pamphlets denying gay people rights accorded straights. These people might preach lo
e in their fastidiously orchestrated conferences, but their agenda is pure fear and hate. I thought with relief about my Texan and Christian friends who do not believe in a global gay conspiracy. I took comfort in the numbers. I am, after all, just one minority of many that this culture objectifies.

I had seen enough. My minder apparently had to verify my departure, so he escorted me to the exit. In order to leave the event, all participants had to pass by the Focus on the Family store. That’s when I understood what Love Won Out is really all about.

My minder boasted that 1,300 people had attended the event, from 14 states and Colombia. I did the math. The conference raised at least $65,000 in door receipts. I remembered reading about Focus on the Family’s recent financial difficulties. Back in January, the organization announced it was reducing its $130 million annual budget by $5 million and eliminating 100 jobs from its main office in Colorado Springs.

I watched as workers off to the side hurriedly burned take-home CDs of the proceedings. They would be for sale at day’s end, my minder informed. Five large tables displayed hundreds of books, tapes, CDs and videos—many of which came in expensive variety packs. As I left the church, the noise of the bustling cash registers rang in my ears. n

Observer intern Patrick Timmons entered into a Vermont Civil Union with his life partner in August 2000, one of the first thousand “pioneer” couples. Homophobia in Texas makes him itch uncontrollably.

he Love Won Out conference kicked off its multi-city national tour in Austin on a sunny morning in late February. A media advisory from the heavily promoted tour alerted me to the event. It was hosted by Focus on the Family, a powerful Colorado-based Christian right “traditional values” advocacy organization founded by James Dobson.

Focus thinks homosexuality is a treatable mental condition, and because they believe in loving the homosexual, they label themselves “pro-gay.” They pitch the conferences to worried parents and spouses. Their press release features comments like this one from an unnamed doctor: “As a pediatrician, this information will be extremely useful in working with parents and children to prevent homosexual behavior and recognize family dynamics and warning signs, which may lead to homosexuality in children.” They also included a handy statistic: the percentage of past attendees who learned they could “balance love and truth when opposing homosexuality.” Before the conference only 57.6 percent replied “yes.” After the event that figure rose to 97 percent.

Every gay activist I’ve ever spoken to considers the idea of curing homosexuality ridiculous and Focus on the Family’s self-titled label of “pro-gay” a deceitful misnomer. As a gay man who happens to be a journalist, I decided to explore this mutation of American evangelical Christianity for myself.

Cars packed the parking lot but I squeezed into the last space at PromiseLand, a Texas megachurch sitting on 26 acres in northeast Austin. Through the main chapel’s double doors, beyond the people checking wristbands, I observed a large audience listening to a lecture. Heterosexual couples and single men of all ages came and went. Rather than take the plunge, I wandered through the corridors around the main hall where more than 20 exhibitor booths were spread out in a horseshoe.

At the exhibits, excessively groomed, middle-aged men with nametags stood chatting idly. I sidled up to the Christian Coalition for Reconciliation, a group with a banner that proclaimed “Freedom from Homosexuality.”

“Where are you from?” the forty-something exhibitor asked.

“I live in Austin, but I’m English,” I replied. “Though my father was from Fort Worth, my mother is a Londoner.”

“Ooh, what a strange combination. I drink tea the English way,” he volunteered. “I love England. I know just how to make a good cup of tea.”

“Really?” I started sniffing fakery. The literature on the table detailed how the man’s relationship with God helped him become straight. Did this man truly consider himself a “former” homosexual? Why did he seem so overly mannered? Mischievous thoughts flickered through my mind. Time for gaydar. “What type of kettle do you use, electric or stove-top?” If he answered electric, I knew that his tastes were too refined for a straight man. Call me politically incorrect, but I’m convinced that straight men just don’t know that electric kettles improve the taste of English tea.

He smiled, a tad flirtatiously. “I’ve got an electric kettle. The water has to be super hot. I know you English.”

And I know gay people. Who was this guy fooling?

I walked over to media registration. A man with a broad smile wearing a Madonna-like headset with microphone took my business card. “I’ve got a Patrick Timmons here from The Texas Observer,” the man said into his microphone. He smiled again. He wasn’t really looking at me, but concentrating on the instructions coming from the headphone in his left ear. “Our media relations person will be with you shortly,” he informed me crisply.

A thirty-something man walked up. Dressed in preppy slacks and a lime green button-down shirt, he introduced himself as belonging to Exodus International, a group that helps people recover from homosexuality. I discerned a telltale gay lilt to his voice. He was so dedicated to the cause, he confided, that recently he’d moved to Orlando, the location of Exodus’ head offices.

From that moment until my departure, he never left my side, keenly watching whenever I jotted down a word into my notepad. He urged me to interview the people specifically available for media sessions. I told him that I usually prefer to find my own subjects, but he insisted.

I observed as broadcast journalists tossed softball questions to a half dozen conference volunteers. In response to inquiries about why they’d come, all stayed on message: A gay family member had brought strife into their lives but Jesus saves. One woman related how her former husband, a closeted gay man, used to stay away from home all the time. Later she discovered the reason. It had nothing to do with her, of course, it was his homosexuality. Each tale ended with the affirmation that the Bible identifies homosexuality as a sin but “we” have a choice.

I asked my minder if I might attend one of the advertised presentations with titles like “Prevention of Male Homosexuality” and “Teaching Captivity? Addressing the Pro-Gay Agenda in Your School.” He said I was barred from sessions where family members asked “sensitive questions.” I would be allowed to attend John Paulk’s talk. Since it was being taped, no questions were allowed.

Paulk is the Pat Robertson of former queers. Even I had heard of him. He is the movement’s poster boy and Focus on the Family’s chief “former-homosexual” organizer.

His appearance was startling. In media photos he shines with a pudgy pre-pubescence. But now, in disguise as a former homosexual, Paulk wears a beard. His tone is clear and the argument—though specious—has the merit of polished organization. He engaged the audience like a consummate showman.

“The first thing you have to do is to turn to the Lord,” Paulk explained. Homosexuality is a sin whose cure is a loving family committed to Christ. But in Paulk’s case, this recipe for happiness hasn’t always worked. He failed to mention to the audience that although now a father with an ex-lesbian for a wife, in 2000 staffers from the Human Rights Campaign—a gay rights advocacy group—caught him in a gay bar in Washington, D.C. Confronted by them, he tried initially to deny his identity.

The session with Paulk ended. I walked to the exhibition booths. Here Paulk’s compassion for homosexuals yielded to hard-knuckled Texas politics. I drifted over to the conservative, Plano-based Free Market Foundation. The Foundation supports bills before the Texas House to prevent gays from foster parenting, joint adoptions, and gay marriage. The Foundation actively uses the courts to defend laws that punish gays. In mid-February they presented the U.S. Supreme Court with a brief defending Texas’ sodomy statute. And, if Warren Chisum’s (R-Pampa) Defense of Marriage Act is not passed this session, the group shrilly warns, the “homosexual agenda across Texas, threatening the validity of loving, traditional families.”

I stood reading their Biblically tinged pamphlets denying gay people rights accorded straights. These people might preach love in their fastidiously orchestrated conferences, but their agenda is pure fear and hate. I thought with relief about my Texan and Christian friends who do not believe in a global gay conspiracy. I took comfort in the numbers. I am, after all, just one minority of many that this culture objectifies.

I had seen enough. My minder apparently had to verify my departure, so he escorted me to the exit. In order to leave the event, all participants had to pass by the Focus on the Family store. That’s when I understood what Love Won Out is really all about.

My minder boasted that 1,300 people had attended the event, from 14 states and Colombia. I did the math. The conference raised at least $65,000 in door receipts. I remembered reading about Focus on the Family’s recent financial difficulties. Back in January, the organization announced it was reducing its $130 million annual budget by $5 million and eliminating 100 jobs from its main office in Colorado Springs.

I watched as workers off to the side hurriedly burned take-home CDs of the proceedings. They would be for sale at day’s end, my minder informed. Five large tables displayed hundreds of books, tapes, CDs and videos—many of which came in expensive variety packs. As I left the church, the noise of the bustling cash registers rang in my ears.

Observer intern Patrick Timmons entered into a Vermont Civil Union with his life partner in August 2000, one of the first thousand “pioneer” couples. Homophobia in Texas makes him itch uncontrollably.

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